Chapter 1: Xiao Nanfeng

As the skies turned dark, red lanterns lit up the Xiao manor. Festooned in red paper decorations, the manor seemed to be heralding a major wedding; people were bustling all over. Sizable groups of guards patrolled the interior and the exterior of the estate to deter any gatecrashers.

Just then, an old man in blue slowly walked past the heavily guarded corridor to the doors within.

He coughed, perhaps suffering from some sort of lung disease. Hunched over, he dabbed at his mouth with a handkerchief as he continued to cough intermittently.

Behind him was a huge black wolfdog, so large it seemed like to be the size of a ferocious tiger. Muscles bulged all over its body, and it looked particularly fierce. Its eyes scanned its surroundings coldly, as though picking out a few choice humans as snacks. The guards that the duo passed by stood stiff with fear, not daring to bar their way.

Finally, the old man arrived at the gate to the inner courtyard, where a dozen or so expressionless guards were standing, preventing any access in and out. Only when the old man walked over did they seem to respond to his presence.

The blue-clad man coughed again, then turned to the captain of the guards. "How is the young master doing?"

The captain of the guard bowed and replied, "Sir, he's chased away all the servants and is refusing to speak. Neither will he accept the groom's attire. He's supposed to be welcoming the bride tomorrow, but he refuses to cooperate."

The blue-clad elder glanced at the groom's attire that the captain of the guards was holding. He furrowed his brows slightly. "Hand it over. I'll have a chat with him myself."

"Please, Sir, if you wouldn't mind, the heir trusts you most out of all of us." The captain of the guards bowed again as he proffered the groom's attire to the elderly man.

A few guards immediately opened the gates to the inner courtyard, allowing the elderly man to step inside. The giant wolfdog continued to follow in his footsteps.

As the guards shut the gates again, they let out identical expressions of relief.

Within the courtyard, the elderly man patted the wolfdog's head. "Blackie, don't stray too far from here, and don't eat anything off the ground, you hear?"

"Woof woof!"

The wolfdog whined a few times, as though it really could understand what the old man was saying.

All the servants within the courtyard had been chased out, leaving behind only the young man whom the elder had to convince: the heir to the house.

Carrying the bundle of attire, the elder walked into an illuminated study.

The doors to the study were wide open. Within were countless packed shelves, and at the very center sat a young man, a scroll in his hand, which he was reading by candlelight.

The youth looked to be sixteen or seventeen, youthful yet with a hint of maturity. He had sharp brows and a steely gaze, and a handsomeness that belied his youth.

He was reading very intently, and he didn't even notice the elder stepping into the study. The elder put down the tray in his hand and waited patiently.

After about half an hour, when the youth had finished reading his scroll, he closed his eyes and meditated on its contents for about an hour before he slowly opened his eyes once more.

"Elder? You've come?" The youth seemed rather surprised.

"Young Master, you'll be welcoming your bride tomorrow. Are you still going to read until the wee hours?" the elder joked.

The youth put the scroll down and sighed softly. "Elder, will they really strip away my rights to this extent? Forcing me, Xiao Nanfeng, to marry against my will?"

The blue-clad elder frowned and shook his head. "Young Master, no one is making things difficult for you. I'm sure you understand that your parents have been dead for a decade by now, and the chief steward has always kept your best interests in mind."

"My parents are missing! Who claimed that they were dead?" Xiao Nanfeng thundered, enraged.

The elder fell silent, waiting for Xiao Nanfeng to calm down before continuing the conversation.

As though realizing that he too had gone overboard, Xiao Nanfeng sighed softly, lifted a flagon of wine, and walked over to the elder.

"Elder, I'm feeling rather upset today. Won't you have a drink with me tonight?" Somewhat melancholy, Xiao Nanfeng poured out two cups of wine.

The elder glanced at Xiao Nanfeng and shook his head. "Young Master, I know how upset you feel, but you must understand that the dead cannot come back to life! If the marquis were still alive, wouldn't we have heard from him in the decade since? You were only six when he passed; now, you are a young man of sixteen. So much has changed within the last decade."

"Indeed? This land was my father's, but its ownership has since transferred to the chief steward. And the chief steward himself? He was nothing more than a housekeeper, a butler! It was my father who conferred him authority. In the decade after he went missing, the chief steward has used me as a hostage to gather power for himself, to push away those who would have assisted me. The right to muster troops, to govern the people—it's all fallen to him! The manifold shops and businesses of the Xiao clan have all become his private property, despite the fact that he's nothing more than a servant! Are all of you going to sit there and do nothing as he continues to bully me?" Xiao Nanfeng grew more and more enraged as he spoke.

The elder's face fell. "Young Master, you can't say anything of that sort around here! If word gets to the chief steward—"

"Oh? So I should let him run roughshod over me without saying a thing? Who among the servants is unaware that I, the young master of the Xiao clan, have been imprisoned in the estate for years?" Xiao Nanfeng drowned his sorrows in a cup of wine.

"The reason the chief steward has forbidden you from gallivanting all about is out of concern for your young age. He worries that there might be thugs, bandits, even assassins lying in wait for you. After all, the marquis had plenty of enemies. When you professed a desire to learn, he sought out esteemed scholars from all over to be your tutors, to provide you with every manner of scroll and record in the land. Hasn't he provided you with all these documents in your study?"

"But what can I do besides study? All manner of cultivation has been forbidden to me; all I have access to is the most pedestrian of body cultivation techniques. Even you servants wouldn't deign to hand a technique like this to your children! Allowing me only to read, to meditate; refusing me martial arts? For all my hard work, despite my sixteen years of age, I've only managed to reach the fifth stage of Acquisition! And you call this 'in my best interests'?!" Xiao Nanfeng scoffed.

In lieu of replying, the elder downed the cup of wine Xiao Nanfeng had poured for him. His goal now was to accompany Xiao Nanfeng so that he could vent his frustrations—and after doing so, to submit to his fate. 

Xiao Nanfeng poured him another cup of wine.

"However, I don't regret the time I've spent reading. I've had batch after batch of tutors over the last decade, and I'm able to comprehend even the most abstruse of essays. I've read and understood all 1,346 scrolls and documents in this study." Xiao Nanfeng swept a hand across the expanse of the shelves, a spark of pride flashing through his eyes. 

"See? The chief steward has been helping you all along. When you marry the chief steward's daughter, you'll become a happy family together." The blue-clad elder seemed to be trying to pacify Xiao Nanfeng.

"A happy family? Elder, you're aware of just what type of woman the chief steward's daughter is, aren't you?" Xiao Nanfeng's brows furrowed as he stared at the elder, who mirrored his actions. "The chief steward's daughter is as beautiful as a fairy from the heavens…"

"As beautiful as a fairy from the heavens? Ha! Her heart might as well be a scorpion's, and she's fickle-minded too! If I'm not mistaken, his daughter has already killed a fair few husbands that she married. She tortured her previous two husbands to death, and to prevent their families from raising a fuss, even killed them all wholesale! Isn't that so?" Xiao Nanfeng sneered.

The elder suddenly grew alarmed. How had the young master learnt of this?

"Young Master, please don't worry. It won't happen this time. You're Young Master Xiao, after all, and with your status and reputation…" The elder drank another cup of wine, sweat beading on his forehead.

"With my land, my rights, my stores and businesses all having been taken away by the chief steward, all he needs now is an excuse to sweep away the last of my legitimacy. Isn't that so? After all, the land here belongs to the Xiao clan, to me! He's nothing but a servant, without title or deed, so he's set his sights on my very body. If I marry his daughter, then our families will combine into one, and he would have the legal standing to swallow up the last traces of the Xiao clan!" Xiao Nanfeng stared coldly at the elder as he concluded his analysis.

"Young Master, y-you—you must be misunderstanding! The chief steward would never…" The elder was momentarily at a loss for words.

"Elder, if I remember correctly, my father saved your life, didn't he?"

Countless emotions flashed over the elder's face. In the end, he nodded firmly. "That's right. The marquis saved my life. I owe him a lifelong debt of gratitude. My internal organs were damaged as a result of the wounds I suffered, and I was no longer able to fight. Instead, the marquis tasked me with caring for the beast cub that he retrieved from a spiritbeast lair, Blackie!"

"Isn't that so? My father noticed the extent of your injuries and knew that it would be difficult for you to accompany him any longer. Instead, he allowed you to remain on the estate as a caretaker for a cub, feeding and clothing you, and even arranging a lucrative career for your son! You do bear the Xiao clan a debt of everlasting gratitude." Xiao Nanfeng's smile slowly faded away.

The elder's demeanor, however, suddenly changed. "Young Master, let bygones be bygones! The marquis has been dead for a decade. What will harping on the past accomplish? Don't resist this marriage any longer—the chief steward has your best interests in mind!"

"My best interests? Haha, is that so? Rearing me like a prized bird, taking advantage of my innocence and naivete, treating me like a hostage, scavenging all that he can from the Xiao clan, and finally forcing me to marry his scorpion of a daughter, to squeeze every last drop of value out of me? And you believe this to be in my best interests?!" Xiao Nanfeng narrowed his eyes, which flashed with anger.

The elder frowned. The young master hadn't given up his resistance after venting his frustrations; rather, he even seemed to be growing angrier. This wouldn't do—the consequences would be unthinkable if the chief steward held him responsible.

"Young Master, I urge you to calm down. You won't be able to resist the chief steward's might. Let us help each other—if I turn on you, your circumstances might grow even more dire." The elder suddenly turned malicious.

Unfazed, Xiao Nanfeng continued to glare at him. "It looks like my father was completely mistaken about you. You've forgotten all about the debt of gratitude owed to my clan—you're the chief steward's lackey, aren't you?"

"Young Master, I simply understand how the wind blows. With the marquis dead, the chief steward is the most powerful person around. I urge you again not to struggle. With your current level of strength, even an injured man like me could take you down with one hand. None of your studies will be able to help you." The elder seemed to have lost all patience. 

"Try it, then," Xiao Nanfeng replied coldly.

The elder's face turned dark. Dropping his servile facade, he suddenly rose up—then stumbled. The world seemed to be spinning around him, and power drained out of his body. He fell to the ground with a sudden thump.

"Poison in the wine? Impossible. You've been under strict surveillance for the last ten years, and there's no chance you ever came into contact with any poison! Just what did you have me drink?" the elder murmured weakly.

Still seated, Xiao Nanfeng glared at him with piercing eyes. "You demean my studying and my education, but these scrolls have all I need. Is it that difficult to concoct poison? I simply had to mix together various foods that were incompatible with each other. Aren't you aware?"

"What? Impossible! No, you drank that wine too. How could you not be affected?" The elder seemed incapable of accepting his present circumstances.

"If I can concoct a poison, I can naturally concoct its antidote as well," Xiao Nanfeng replied calmly. "Are you aware that you are about to die?"


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